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NIK about education in special schools

Not in all special schools the education process runs smoothly and not all of them provided proper learning conditions. In 11 out of 12 audited schools, NIK found at least one irregularity related to the way education was organised. Other irregularities were connected with the facility itself, furnishing of classrooms, pupils’ safety and health. The NIK audit also showed that the Ministry of Education did not sufficiently monitor learning conditions in special schools. It focused more on the so-called inclusive education, provided by open-access schools.

Due to the education reform which came into force on 1 September 2017, the Ministry prepared essential documents on changes in special education. Though, in three draft ordinances it stated that the changes would not have any further financial consequences. In spite of legal obligation, the Minister failed to provide any analyses to confirm that, which NIK found unreliable. Even more so that one of those changes led to a 7% increase in the number of classes in special schools. In the opinion of NIK, that could result in higher school management costs. This thesis is confirmed by NIK’s questionnaire: 73% of district authorities that participated in the study reported an increase in expenditures following that change.

Besides, the Ministry of Education failed to provide in due date (i.e. before the start of school year 2017/2018,and also in subsequent years) all text books and teaching materials adapted to the core curriculum for persons with special educational needs. In the long run, only in half of the audited schools pupils had sufficient access to them.

On the other hand, NIK positively evaluated stable financing of special schools. From January 2017 to June 2020, it allocated PLN 10 million for that purpose from the education part of the state budget. It is hard to establish, though, if education in such schools, although relatively expensive, brings about the desired effects and prevents social isolation, as most of them do not systematically monitor the fate of their pupils.

Special schools in Poland

The final decision whether to send a child with special educational needs to an open-access, an inclusive or a special school is down to the child’s parents or legal guardians. However, the child has to have a special educational needs statement issued by a psychological-pedagogical counselling centre, in line with the child’s individual needs.

In school year 2016/2017, nearly 71 thousand pupils attended special schools. That is about half of those for whom such statement was issued (45%). In the last school year (2019/2020), it was already nearly 69 thousand, or 39%. As was revealed by other NIK audits on special education, most pupils with special educational needs statements go to open-access schools.

In the audited period, the largest group of pupils attending special schools were children and youth with light intellectual disability, multiple disabilities (having at least two types of disabilities) and with moderate or severe disability.

Percentage of pupils with special educational needs statement

 due to disability in 2016-2019

Percentage of pupils with special educational needs statement due to disability in 2016-2019: 1% - motor disability, including aphasia; 3% - autism, including Asperger Syndrome; 12% - socially maladjusted persons and the ones with social maladjustment; 28% - multiple disabilities; 25% - moderate or severe intellectual disability; 1% - blind and visually impaired ; 2% - deaf and hearing-impaired; 28% - light intellectual disability. Source: NIK’s analysis

Source: NIK’s analysis

Year after year, the number of pupils in special schools is falling, just like the number of special schools - in school year 2016/2017 there were about 2400 schools, in school year 2019/2020 it was only about 1900 schools, including:

  • primary schools - 867  
  • vocational training schools - 538,
  • level 1 vocational schools - 385 (mainly for pupils with light intellectual disability),
  • 64 secondary schools,
  • 35 technical schools,
  • 20 post-secondary schools.

In 2016-2020, from among secondary schools the most popular ones were vocational schools.  They were chosen by about 10.5 thousand to nearly 13 thousand pupils. The most preferred professions were related to gastronomy and hotel industry.

Professions most often chosen by special school pupils

Professions most often chosen by special school pupils: COOK, HOTEL HOUSEKEEPING ASSISTANT, PASTRY COOK. Source: NIK’s analysis

Source: NIK’s analysis

Local governments did not have full educational offer in the audited period for pupils with all disabilities and in each profession preferred  by them. Nevertheless, district heads guaranteed places in adequate schools (even in the ones not managed by local governments) to all pupils having statements of special educational needs.

Despite such obligation, 2 of 10 audited districts lacked up-to-date information about the network of special schools available in their area. That could make it difficult for parents or carers of children with special educational needs to choose a school that would be most suitable for them.

Nearly half of the audited local government units (4 of 10) failed to prepare strategic documents that would consider local needs in the area of special education, concerning e.g. social and professional integration programmes for disabled persons, improvement of teachers’ competences, modernisation works to adapt open-access schools for the disabled or provision of additional teaching aids to schools. NIK’s questionnaire shows that over a half of 249 districts (54%) did not have such documents in the audited period and 8% were in the process of developing them.

Changes in the functioning of special schools

In the audited period, the Ministry of Education implemented a number of changes in special schools, related e.g. to the way the education process is organised. They involved among others specifying the number of pupils in classes (depending on the disability type) and not combining pupils with moderate or severe intellectual disability and pupils with multiple disabilities in one class. Also, it was specified that rehabilitation classes have to last 60 minutes. This type of classes is to improve pupils’ developmental and intellectual functions which are impaired.

According to NIK, these changes affect learning conditions and work organisation in special schools, which has been confirmed by NIK’s questionnaire. 11% of 508 head teachers covered by our study and 10% of 249 district authorities said that those changes made it difficult to manage schools and resulted in increased costs of that management.

At the same time, the Ministry of Education developed draft ordinances about the number of pupils in classes, duration of rehabilitation classes and changes to the individual learning principles. The Ministry stated that those changes would not have further financial consequences. It failed to submit any analyses to confirm that thesis, although local government activists and public head teachers had an opposite view. They also claimed that such solution was not justified from therapeutic and educational viewpoint. They suggested that the rehabilitation classes should last 45 minutes (as a standard class) but the Ministry found those reservations groundless. The Ministry stood in a position that the classes should last 60 minutes, regardless of the type and degree of a pupils’ disabilities. Only in exceptional cases they may be shortened, sticking however to the total weekly duration of classes for a given pupil.

A problem that occurred as a follow-up of the education reform that has been implemented since 2017 - also in special schools - was to provide text books, teaching materials and exercises before the start of school year 2017/2018, and also in subsequent years, in line with the new core curriculum.

The NIK audit revealed that the Ministry of Education recommended the adaptation of text books, teaching materials and exercises too late or - in some cases - not at all. In the long run, only half of the audited special schools had sufficient access to adequate materials. Some teachers used text books and exercises developed in line with the core curriculum of 2002 (and allowed for use, although the curriculum changed also in 2008 and 2012). According to NIK, special schools have to be provided with materials which are consistent with the current core curriculum.

Errors in key school documents

The multi-specialist assessment of the pupil's functioning level and the individual learning and therapy programme are key documents for pupils as they directly affect their education and development at present and in the future. They enable a multi-layer diagnosis and hence a specification of the scope of classes and teaching methods tailored to the pupil. However, in nearly half of the audited schools (5 in 12), the documents were prepared improperly, without due care or with delay, which - according to NIK - made it difficult to adequately educate pupils requiring special teaching methods and work organisation.

The documents are developed in school by a team made up of teachers, parents and a pedagogue, as well as other interested persons. The school authorities should invite parents and adult pupils to the team meetings. That obligation was not met by the head teacher of every third audited school. Additionally, in two schools parents and adult pupils were not provided with documents prepared by the team.

As a result, parents could not be fully involved in the process of developing key documents for their children’s education, or were not involved in the process at all. According to NIK, that fact could have made the information provided in those documents incomplete and the support - insufficient. Correct and complete diagnosis of a child - indicating their strengths and weaknesses - is possible only thanks to observations of both: teachers and parents. By participating in the said processes, pupils’ parents may look into their children’s needs and possibilities of working with them at home.

Problems with organising education and providing proper learning conditions

The irregularities identified by NIK were related not only to documents but also to care about pupils’ health and safety as well as proper organisation of the education process. The latter were found only in some classes in over a half of the audited schools:

  • in 5 schools, the acceptable number of pupils was exceeded, in some cases even by 50 %,
  • in 6 schools, the number of lessons was smaller than scheduled,
  • in 3 schools, rehabilitation classes were not organised properly - the minimum number of those classes was not carried out or they lasted less than 60 minutes.

According to NIK, inadequate organisation of education and rehabilitation classes as well as of psychological and pedagogical support classes has infringed pupils’ rights to education and may also threaten the achievement of education objectives.

The pandemic made it even more difficult to organise education in special schools. According to education authorities, in spring all schools switched to remote learning. Not all of them faced up to challenges related to that situation, in common with pupils’ parents and carers. The most frequent problems included:

  • schools were not prepared for remote learning - e.g. they lacked proper IT equipment, cameras or digital gradebooks, as well as teachers (some took care of their own children due to the pandemic, while others were not prepared to work online);
  • issues related to parents and pupils -  pupils had limited access to Internet, both parents and pupils had problems using computer programmes, pupils’ disabilities resulted in their limited cognitive functions, parents’ disabilities were also an issue;
  • problems in contacting dysfunctional families that refused to cooperate with teachers;
  • lack of teaching materials available online, adapted for intellectually impaired pupils.

In NIK’s questionnaire, issues with the remote learning organisation were confirmed by 24% districts, that is 10% of questionnaire participants.

The education law provides pupils, also the ones with disabilities, with the possibility of using rooms for learning with essential equipment. That not only allows covering the core curriculum but also makes the education process more attractive and diverse. It is extremely important in case of persons with special educational needs.

Adequate standards for school premises and proper furnishing of classrooms were not provided in 3 of 12 audited schools. One school lacked a gym and a sports field, in two others there were only 4 seats in computer classrooms. Classes 1-3 did not have isolated and furnished recreation section with properly adapted floor to move around freely and work comfortably. More than 50% of head teachers covered by NIK’s questionnaire evaluated the furnishing of school rooms as average or worse.

As much as ⅔ of the audited schools breached the safety and health regulations. One school was located in a 19th century building entered in the register of monuments, not adapted for the disabled. In other schools NIK also identified aspects that made life more difficult for such persons, such as the absence of special toilets or uneven and dangerous floor. The head teachers explained that the situations were caused by ignorance or the schools’ difficult financial standing.

The Ministry of Education monitored learning conditions in a limited scope. It rather focused on the so-called inclusive education, provided by open-access schools. It assumes that disabled persons have the right to develop in line with their capabilities, without the need to catch up with non-disabled persons. In this approach the school system is tailored to individual learning pace, talents and difficulties of each pupil. According to the Ministry, popularising this type of education approach will improve the education quality. For this reason, in 2017 it had a draft programme developed: ”Education for all”. It assumes that education in kindergartens and special schools will be limited in time and that it will aim at preparing pupils for education in open-access schools. The draft was not approved before the end of the audit (June 2020).

Adult life adaptation

Special schools are to help pupils prepare for independent life and for taking up work. They should build their identity and provide them with the skills and knowledge that will allow them to use human rights and freedoms, to the best of individual abilities.

All the audited schools took efforts to help pupils adapt for adult life, such as: trips to workplaces or a theatre, workshops, meetings (also on special occasions), as well as artistic or sports competitions. On such occasions, pupils had the opportunity to make contacts with their peers, also non-disabled ones. Another type of support in the adult life adaptation was organisation of meetings with a school nurse about adolescence.

As many as eight in 10 audited districts undertook support actions, for instance using the EU funds.

It should be stressed that in case of some pupils, the adult life adaptation is not possible due to their disability. They need the support of third persons - parents, carers or teachers to meet their most basic needs in everyday life (such as eating, getting dressed and others).

Fate of special school graduates is not monitored

Does the special school education system achieve the assumed results? Does it prevent social isolation? It is hard to tell as the Ministry of Education did not develop (without being obliged to) any mechanisms to gather and analyse data about the fate of special school graduates. One thing is certain: the system is relatively expensive. In 2019, the total of about PLN 3-6 thousand was paid monthly for a single pupil.

Neither local governments nor special schools ensured systematic and organised monitoring. NIK stands in a position that such data would enable changing the process of educating persons with special educational needs, by catering for their real needs.

Only in two audited schools the fate of graduates was monitored on an on-going basis and the analyses’ results were used to improve the quality of school work. 

Most head teachers of other schools assured that they were familiar with the fate of school graduates. Some head teachers said it was difficult or impossible to track the fate of some graduates, e.g. because they changed their place of residence. Besides, in case of, for instance, graduates with severe or multiple disabilities, it was not necessary to keep track of their fate because they were taken care of by their families or friends.

According to NIK, properly organised information exchange about the fate of special school graduates - their continued education and development after finishing formal education - could streamline the development of programmes and education in such schools. That is why, NIK recommended that the Ministry of Education develop and implement a system to gather and analyse such data.

Author: , Date of creation: 2021-02-03 11:40:09